They sit at every table at Huong Giang in small glass bowls: long, smooth, fire-engine-red peppers pulsating with the promise of their alluring hell. Eaters bite into them with ease, or snap them into pieces and toss them into soups, onto noodle plates, onto everything. It's an exercise in masochism, but also just a garnish for the food of Hue, the capital of the former Vietnamese empire that's to central Vietnamese cooking what champagne is to the bubbly. And Huong Giang is its local emissary.
The most famous dish of central Vietnam is bún bò Hue, pho's abrasive cousin, and most of the tables here order at least one bowl. The funky sea of cubes of congealed pork blood, trotters, tendons, slices of beef shank and pork sausage creates a broth that zaps like a live wall socket—even before you spike it with banana blossoms, rau ram, those vicious peppers and the rest of the small jungle of herbs Huong Giang's waiters place before you. It's a spectacular soup, one that snaps at you, fatty and comforting yet letting you know of its furtive power with every sip, but there are many as-worthy plates for the less adventurous. Bánh beo, small rice cakes, are a Vietnamese dim sum, the cakes topped with anything from pork cracklings to dried shrimp, all accompanied by a fish sauce spiked with the same chiles that sit on the tables. The rice cakes themselves are more for texture than taste, but they're fine catalysts for the rest of the flavors that sit before you, sopping them up like the most delicious sponge on Earth.
Huong Giang is actually best known for its charcuterie, a side business so successful that half of the restaurant is a kitchen in which women make bulk orders, and the to-go menu lists only meats and egg rolls. Sausages come in many varieties, but the best are the ones spiked with periwinkle—not the color, but rather the clam, here tossed with ginger and pork, then patted around lemongrass, briny yet brawny. Even better is what they translate into English as "pork hash" but is better appreciated as Vietnamese Spam: compressed ham mixed with shreds of daikon and a long sliver of habanero waiting for you to bite into it and sweat. If they sold it as a breakfast bánh mì, we'd have the next Egg McMuffin—and for three cubes of them, expertly wrapped in banana leaves, for 50 cents, you also have the best food deal in Orange County right now. Go, and beware those chiles—you've been warned.
This column appeared in print as "Hue Great."
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